Nicaragua witnessed an unprecedented wave of arrests targeting Catholic priests during the New Year celebrations, with at least 14 clergymen and two seminarians detained since Christmas. Pope Francis expressed “deep concern” on Monday regarding the situation, marking a sharp escalation in tensions between the government of Daniel Ortega and the Catholic Church.
The latest arrest occurred on the last day of 2023, when Father Gustavo Sandino, the parish priest in Santa María de Pantasma, Jinotega, was detained. This crackdown started with the arrest of Bishop Isidoro Mora of Siuna on December 20, followed by the detention of priests from churches and parishes across the country.
Addressing the situation during the traditional Angelus prayer at St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, Pope Francis stated, “I follow with deep concern what is happening in Nicaragua, where bishops and priests have been deprived of their freedom.” He urged prayers for those affected and called for a dialogue to overcome difficulties.
The Nicaraguan government and police have not officially responded to the arrest reports. Meanwhile, government sources highlighted a massive New Year’s Eve vigil organized by thousands of evangelicals in southeast Managua, supported by the police and the city council.
These arrests come amid strained relations between the Ortega government and the Catholic Church, particularly since the anti-government protests in 2018. Ortega accused the Church of supporting the protests, considering them an attempted coup sponsored by Washington.
The diplomatic relations between Nicaragua and the Vatican reached a breaking point in 2023 when Pope Francis labeled Ortega’s government as a “blatant dictatorship.”
Bishop Silvio Báez, who went into exile in the United States in 2019, thanked the Pope for expressing concern about the “kidnapped bishops and priests.”
International support for the release of the detained priests and 120 opposition figures has been urged by Nicaraguan exile organizations. They called on the global community to fulfill its responsibility to protect human rights in Nicaragua, urging the withdrawal of economic and political support for the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship.
With two bishops now in prison, concerns grow about the fate of the arrested clergy. Analysts speculate that the detained religious figures might face exile, a tactic previously used when 12 priests were sent to Rome in October 2023 as part of an agreement between the government and the Vatican.
The ongoing detentions are viewed as an attempt to silence and eliminate the Catholic Church, which has been increasingly critical of the Ortega regime. The government’s actions reflect a broader pattern of suppressing opposition and curtailing freedom of expression, indicating a ruthless drive towards establishing a dynastic dictatorship.
According to Martha Molina’s research, there have been 740 attacks on the church since 2018, leading to the expulsion or prohibition of 176 priests and nuns from the country. Institutions associated with the Church, including the Jesuit Central American University (UCA), have also faced closures.